I remember my baptism with mixed clarity. Some details are vibrant and mark the day, even ingrain it in my mind with both a combination of anxiety and peace. Other details I cannot recall with more than a flicker, perhaps a blur of faces and flashes of sentiment. But, while I remember a smattering of details, there are only a few which I find now to be of consequence.

Firstly, I know that I was baptized. I know that two men stood at either side of the baptismal font in a room that was lined with brown, scratchy, woven fabric walls and was covered in dark brown moldings and brown, tightly woven commercial carpet. They stood there to witness that when immersed, all of me went under—down to the last stray strand of nearly coal black hair. My baptism was by immersion.

Secondly, one of my joys of the day was knowing that it would be my dad, my wonderful father, who was then bishop of our little ward, who would baptize me. Having authority because of the Melchizedek Priesthood which he held, he raised his right arm up to what is often referred to as “the square” because the upper arm is supposed to be at a right angle from the forearm. He said a very specific prayer, and baptized me in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

My anxiety of the day was my baptismal attire. Somehow or other a past family had forgotten to return some of the baptism dresses that were kept at our modest meetinghouse in Moberly, Missouri. My mother was an excellent seamstress and would certainly have put something together in advance had she known. But the day came, we arrived, and the closet storing those dresses held only attire that was either unsuitable or too large. What then was I baptized in? Well, the tradition is to wear white, and so I was relegated to wear the white blouse I had come in along with the white slip under my skirt. Proving therefore, that a person can be baptized in any respectable type of clothing.

I remember being all too conscious that the boy’s my age would see my underclothes through my wet slip. But, my third memory of the day was that once completely immersed and brought back up out of the water, I hardly worried. Such a concern lost importance in the large scheme of what I was doing. I was whisked off to a private bathroom. Dried and dressed by my mother, and ushered out into that same brown-dominated room to be confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, again by my father and a couple other priesthood holders. He placed his hands upon my head and commanded me, in the name of Jesus Christ, to receive the Holy Ghost.

As happy as an eight-year-old could be, I was. And while I was not old enough to understand everything, I knew, and felt, that I had made the right choice to be baptized. There was never any question in my mind as to if I should not. And, while I don’t remember any of the talks given that day, who gave them, or what they said, I understood at a very shallow level that I was embarking on a path to do God’s will with my life.

One of my final joys of the day was receiving a two-dollar bill from my CTR teacher, Brother Reeves. All of the kids in my Primary class anxiously awaited getting baptized, because we all knew Brother Reeves would give us a crisp, two-dollar bill. We understood, somehow, that $2 bills were unique, uncommon, and special. And, now, thirty-two years later, I understand that he was trying to teach us that choosing to follow Christ at such an age is even more rare, more uncommon, and more special.

What Baptism is Not

There has been a lot of controversy, since the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, as to what baptism is, who should be baptized, who can perform baptisms, and how a person should be baptized. But, this is not a New Testament-only controversy. Baptism is an eternal ordinance and it was had by Adam and by all thereafter who desired to do God’s will with their lives (Moses 6:51-60; 3 Nephi 11:22-28). Adam, himself, asked after the purpose of baptism, and in the Book of Mormon we read that many were confused as to how it should be done.

Currently, in our modern society, baptism is seen much more casually and is held akin to joining a club. It’s a rite of passage, no more, and thus, it is thought, it can be performed in any numerous ways, by any number of people, and in some religions it is thought to be no more important than in confessing Christ with one’s lips. Many Christian religions encourage baptism, but not all now believe it necessary to salvation.

Baptism is so ancient that it is often taken for granted. And it’s so simple an ordinance that it is easily altered to meet our own desires, expectations, fears, and misunderstandings. Baptism, however, is not a human invention. It is God’s.

Baptism is NOT:

What Baptism Is

Baptism IS:

  • a ritual, a memorial event commanded by God to be performed physically, as an outward sign of an inner desire to follow Christ and give one’s life over to God
  • the gate to enter God’s celestial kingdom (John 3:4-5)
  • of eternal effect when performed by someone with true priesthood authority
  • necessary for the basic salvation of all those who are capable of being accountable
  • for those who have a true desire to follow Christ and live their live by God’s will
  • for those who wish to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost (baptism of fire) and be sanctified over the course of their life by the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost and the receipt of higher ordinances and covenants
  • a choice that takes us off neutral ground and puts us on God’s side (Faith is Not by Chance, but By Choice, Elder Neil L. Andersen, October 2015)

Needless Controversy About Baptism

A lot of people get upset when Church policy (based upon the command of God to His prophet) restricts baptism to some until they reach a certain age. The children of polygamist families and now same-sex marriage families must wait until they are 18 to be receive the ordinance of baptism. Such policies create anger and resentment. Publicly, many decry this as an unkindness, a discriminatory policy, and an unfair one and use it to condemn the prophet, or “the brethren” as uninspired and old-fashioned, even oppressive.

However, for those that understand the incredible sanctity and privilege of such an ordinance as well as God’s mercy, they should have no such qualms nor take such offense. What is God saying by restricting baptism to such individuals?

He is indicating the following:

  1. They are not fully accountable before Him (because of their family situations) until they reach 18! Certainly, they are accountable in many ways, and such a measure does not condone the willful committing of sin, but should such die before the age of 18 and not have a chance to be baptized, they would still be eligible for salvation and exaltation. Much of their accountability regarding the impact of sin made so acceptable in their nurturing home environment is taken into account by God. This is a great comfort and one that has long been preached in Moroni 8:5,10-15,20,22,25.
  2. That the ordinance of baptism and the covenants attached are so sacred as to not be entered into lightly or without a conviction that a person wishes to follow Christ and live by the will of God. Children born into families where a natural softening toward sin (polygamy against the will of God, same-sex marriage against the will of God) need more time—which God knows—to sort out their feelings and decide what they believe. Baptism is sacred. God does not wish any to enter into such a covenant without first having a pure desire to enter His kingdom.
  3. That baptism is more than a gate; it is a journey toward a far greater destiny—the privilege of becoming like God (Doctrine & Covenants 14:7; John 17:3). This is not a spiritual educational path to embark upon lightly. Baptism is not just about “getting in” God’s church. It is about accepting a covenant and ordinance with our eyes looking forward to the future that God deeply desires and intends for us.

Why Baptism?

Christ was baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.” He didn’t need baptism to remit His sins but He did need to be baptized to continue to “do the will of Him that sent me.” He needed baptism to remain perfect, to remain faithful, to remain capable of being our Savior. For Him, to accept baptism was to accept, yet again, His role as our Savior, Mediator, and Redeemer.

His baptism was also an example to us. He went to a man who held authority from God to baptize. He was baptized by immersion. He received the presence of the Holy Ghost and gave His apostles the power and authority to confer the gift of it on others. For His baptism, which He was restoring/re-dispensing was a higher baptism. Unlike the baptism of John which was only unto repentance, Christ’s baptism was of fire (the Holy Ghost) and unto sanctification. And by Christ’s (and thus God-the-Father’s) decree, we need both (baptism unto repentance and the baptism of the Holy Ghost) to enter into the gate to the celestial kingdom of God.

So, unlike Christ, we do need baptism (and a the weekly ordinance/offering of the Sacrament) to continually remit our sins and renew our baptismal covenants. It is yet another outward ritual that helps us to remember our covenants and stay on the covenant path.

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Baptism is a physical marker. Thus, because it takes place externally, and is not merely an internal confession of faith, but a physical sign of our faith, it gives it meaning, memorability, and accountability to our actions of the day and thereafter. Such a physical mark gives us power to keep the covenants we make along with the physical ritual. There were witnesses! People know we made a promise to follow God. It adds to our internal desire a pressure to be true to our outward action

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God is a god of sacrifice, of memorials and rites (such as baptism), and of remembrance. Outward ordinances, such as baptism, are for our benefit. They make it nearly impossible to forget the covenants and promises we have made to God.

Conclusion

I can’t think of a better conclusion to the topic of baptism than this scripture, Mosiah 18:8-10:

…Behold, here are the waters of [baptism]…and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that he have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

The priesthood authority to baptize by water and by fire is within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I invite all to renew their baptismal covenants or to seek out such living works as can now be found again on the earth

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Doctrine: God may know our hearts, but we can’t know our own hearts or the true extent of our spiritual devotion without outward action and ritual. Such ritual creates mental, emotional, and spiritual landmarks, memories, and grooves that change us fundamentally. Passive, inward, devotion alone cannot produce the faith and power necessary for us to lay hold upon the full measure of God’s grace and glory.

We live in a time where people shun organized religion and ritual. To them the ritual of attending meetings and doing prayers and other formal outward acts of devotion are outdated and unnecessary. They may even consider them ridiculous and empty. Their defense against such things is that God (if there is a God) knows their heart and therefore doesn’t need such things. And, I cannot disagree with that.

However, I can promise these people that while God knows their heart, they, themselves do not know it. They think they do. But, they don’t. I can also promise that while God doesn’t need their rituals, they do, and that they cannot be true Christians without it.

Ritual Teaches Us About Us

Those who profess to know God and to follow Him without ritual and organized religion do not know the extent of their devotion to Christ, the depth of their feelings about Him, or the breadth of their capacity to follow Him. To put it bluntly, they don’t know anything about their spiritual power and capability. They don’t really know if they want to live with God forever. They don’t really know if they want to live like God forever. They can’t know these things without such devotion being tested. Ritual illustrates, tests, and teaches us about the level of our spiritual devotion and desires.

My Mother-in-law has what she calls a “God Box.” When she bumps into something in her life that she cannot control or change and she is struggling to let go and give it over to God, she writes it down on a piece of paper and puts it in her God Box.

“What good is that?” a skeptic may ask. She can just tell herself in her head and heart that she will let it go. Why then go through the hassle of writing it down and putting it in some random box?

But let me suggest that by going through the ritual (however small) of putting those things in her God Box, my Mother-in-law has created a spiritual groove in her soul, and also a mental and emotional groove in her heart and mind. The very act of doing something ritualistic and outward creates a powerful memory. It becomes personal evidence. Then, when she is tempted to stress about it, try to control it, or try to carry it, her spirit, mind, and heart trip on those grooves. She is then reminded, and knows for herself, that she has given this burden over to God. It then becomes easier and easier to let it go. Going through the ritual has the power to create unshakable knowledge and thereby unshakable faith.

Note the principle: by ritualistically writing something down and putting it in the box she has a clear memory of giving the burden over to God. She knows, perfectly, without a doubt, that she has given it away to Him. Because of this perfect knowledge because of her ritual, she also knows perfectly that God knows she has given it away. Thus, she can trust Him completely to carry it.

The ritual is an outward signification that marks, and shows to herself, her inner desires to accomplish or do something. It sounds simple, but by going through the ritual, she makes it nearly impossible to go back on her desires and intent.

Let’s now ask, “If she hadn’t gone through the ritual, what would she have lost out on?” She would have lost out on the chance to give meaning to her individual devotion and resolve. She would have lost out on the chance to know the extent of her intent to give such burdens to the Lord. By doing she gained a testimony of her own ability to act on her intent. She would have also lost out on receiving the power that comes from making an outward commitment to herself and God. By making it physical and outward, she made it real. She gave her desire life and to go back on it would be destructive to her spiritually and emotionally. That’s how powerful ritual is.

Ritual is the Evidence of Faith and Gives Our Faith Power

It is one thing to believe in Christ. It is another thing to act on that belief. Without the action, there is no evidence of our belief, it is only potential belief, or dormant belief. We can say we believe in Christ but there is no evidence or proof that we can offer, especially to ourselves. On the other hand, it is possible to go through the motions of belief and not actually believe, but it exceedingly rare and usually temporary. If such a course is pursued in a cursory way, it will in time transform and unbeliever into a true believer if they continue. That is the nature and power of righteous action.

Thus, we cannot say we have faith unless we also have works. Faith without works is dead (James 2:20, 26). Let me explain fully what that means.

Abraham, in the Old Testament, is asked by Jehovah to sacrifice his only covenant son, Isaac. Abraham could have said all day and night in his mind and to his relations, “I will do whatever God asks of me, withholding nothing.” And, God knew that Abraham would do anything he was asked to do. But, saying it was not sufficient for Abraham to know for himself that he really would. It wasn’t until Abraham was about to put a knife to Isaac that the Lord provided a ram in the thicket. It was in that moment, in what was sure to be the most godly trial any mortal man has ever had to carry, that Abraham knew, for himself, the depth of his love of God and his devotion to the Almighty Jehovah (President Hugh B. Brown in Truman G. Madsen, The Highest in Us [1978], 49). And Abraham could not have known it without the physical ritual.

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So, why do works? Why get married if it could end in divorce? Why get baptized? Why repent openly and before authorized representatives and judges of God? Why get married or enter into covenants accompanied by outward ritual? Why pray out loud? Why get on your knees? Why pay your tithing and offerings? Why sacrifice the things of the world for the things of a better? Why go to church? Why partake of the sacrament? Why, why, why…

It’s for us. It is all for us. And doing it has everything to do with us and what we know about our own souls. For without doing we can only suppose or guess about our love of God and devotion to Him. But, with the doing we then come to know about our love and devotion to Him.

God doesn’t need our sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22). We need them. God doesn’t need our prayers. We need them. God doesn’t need our money. We need to offer it for our own knowledge and understanding of our willingness to sacrifice and obey God, no matter the outcome (though God’s blessings are absolutely, universally, and eternally guaranteed for the sacrifices we make to do His will: Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21; 82:10).

The whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is set up for us to learn about the depth of our spiritual commitment, desires, and goals and to grant us power to be saved.

In Lectures on Faith we learn that in order to have faith in God, one of the critical components is a “an actual knowledge that the course of life which one is pursuing is according to His will (Lecture Third).” That means that we know, for ourselves, without a doubt, that the course of our life is as God would have it be. It means we know we are sincerely trying to do what God wants us to do. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but it means we know we are sincerely trying and that we never stop trying—even when we continually mess up.

In order to exercise the full power of faith; the kind of faith that precedes miracles; the kind of faith that moves mountains and compels martyrs to die for Christ; the kind of faith that can save us; we must know we are on the right track for ourselves. And, we can’t know that for ourselves without outward ritual and organized religion. We need that outward ritual and devotion as evidence for ourselves—not for God.

Christ said (Matthew 7:21):

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

Why do we have to DO God’s will in conjunction with our inward devotion?

Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things: it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has, for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life. (Lectures on Faith, Lecture 6, italics added)

Our faith in Christ’s grace and offer of salvation is dead without our efforts at the accompanying works. Faith without works cannot save us and it certainly cannot exalt us.

When we KNOW, without a doubt, the extent of our spiritual devotion (and we can know it without a doubt by the evidence we give to ourselves through ritual and outward devotion), we have confidence before God—the kind of confidence that can call down miracles from heaven and bear life-changing testimony to those we meet. And this is because this confidence in our own righteousness (not pride) and heart removes all fear. It creates in us a well of grace that simply cannot go dry (St. John 4:13-15) on our own behalf or others—if we maintain it.

Lack of Ritual Decreases our Spiritual Power

Just as people gain godly power from proper ritual and outward devotion, so also many lose power the moment they cease such efforts. “Well, I got baptized, served a mission, and got married in the temple, so I’m good.” BEEP. Wrong. “I went to Seminary for a couple years, so I’m good.” BEEP. Wrong. Etc. That’s like saying you’ve worked hard for several years to get to the peak of your physical capacity and now that you’ve reached it your body will simply stay at that peak of fitness. BEEP. Wrong.

All of us know that mundane physical exercises and stretches must be performed by even the most fit of individuals, and that those mundane exercises and stretches are the foundation of their fitness. Thus, the same applies spiritually. The small acts of devotion and ritual that we do to become spiritual to begin with are the very things that help us maintain our power to remain so. We may build upon them from time to time, but those minimal acts should never cease if we expect to maintain our knowledge of our faithfulness and our power to continue faithful.

It’s strange, the moment I get out of shape, I suddenly start to believe that I’ll never get in shape again. It happens long before I’m actually totally out of shape. That’s because I’ve lost momentum. And, getting that momentum going again is difficult. We all know what it’s like to “suck air” for a week or so of running until we build up our lungs and muscle endurance again.

The moment we realize we’ve gained some weight, we suddenly start to believe that we’ll be overweight forever. We see others who are in shape and we mourn. Yet, there is no evidence that our silly depressed emotions are true. There is, in fact, only evidence that we have complete power over our ability to lose weight and get fit. So, why do we start believing something so false? Because we have stopped doing, we are no longer certain about ourselves any longer.

Without outward action, devotion, and ritual we can never have any certainty about spiritual selves. And, so it is a lie to think that one can be devoted to God without it.

We all need a God Box. We all need ritual.

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